Free Raspas


It’s a serene spring morning in San Antonio, Texas—sunny but not so much heat. American troops are suffering from hits by men in black pajamas at the birthplace of Judeo-Christian civilization, the triangle of the Tigris and Euphrates, that fertile crescent we were taught about so much in elementary school. The musical Chicago is set to win the most Oscars, but the gowns this year promise to be more respectfully subdued, deglitzed. The Spurs will surely beat the threepeat champion Lakers again, but TVs are on loud and excitedly. White nationalists, shaved heads and swastikas, are demonstrating against illegal immigration in front of the Alamo, and the police have cordoned off much to keep the supremicists at a distance, to keep other people as much away as possible.

A couple of hours after that demonstration, the normal groupings of tourists entering and exiting the gates of this historic battle site, another group of demonstrators, five or six, depending on how you count, have approached the plaza area. They wear white dress shirts, black pants, and thin black ties. They carry a sign: FREE RASPAS! In the middle of the protest sign is a photo of a mustached man in a motorcycle helmet with a lightning rod insignia, wearing cheap dark—maybe mirror—sunglasses. The protesters, Chicanos all, wear similarly cheap dark sunglasses. They are organizing their march on a rock ledge in the shade near a vendor’s stand. The vendor is a little agitated and confused. He fidgets, expecting a yelling argument and he’s pumped up thinking of it, squirming. Instead, he decides to move. Raspas are snowcones. He sells raspas for $2.

Soon the protestors are carrying snowcones. Ones they paid for, at another stand, for $2 each, as many colors as they could get them in, and they march single-file toward the front of the Alamo with snowcones in hand. There are familiar chants: “No raspas, no peace!” or “Las raspas unidas, jamas serán vencidas!” Sometimes they loop silently and solemnly, sometimes they scream and chant. No TV or newspaper crews are here are to record this event as news.

Alamo tourists stop and snap photos or hit record on their videocams, filming surreptitiously or openly, depending on their confidence. There is muttering among those who don’t speak Spanish. They want to know who this Raspas is. Some are simply curious, some get angry. Free speech or not, it might not be right. An older Anglo man shakes his head like he’s cocking a gun. Another, a younger man, scrunches his face like he’s visualizing balled up trash, telling his girlfriend as they walk past how he’d like to take those signs away from those people. Another man believes raspas are abortions.

The gathered police, local and park, are calm but uncomfortable as the line approaches the gates. The group is told it cannot enter unless they put down their signs. They can roll them up, shove them in their back pockets neatly or whatever, but they cannot carry or hold up these signs. The police have plastic red cones set to mark a line that cannot be crossed. The Raspa demonstrators can march to the perimeter of them. The group consults and considers its options. They decide to continue in the acceptable front of the Alamo without trying to penetrate its inner walls.

A street person who knows what raspas are rushes up and asks for one. It is given. Another man who speaks Spanish says, “You have free raspas?” and he is given one too. A woman with blond hair approaches, demanding an explanation. She is peeved. Unsatisfied with what she hears, she tells her family, eating Haagen-Das ice cream on sugar cones, what she’s figured out on her own: This is nothing more than a marketing gimmick to get people to go buy the raspas from the vendor behind her. Those “demonstrators” are paid to do what they’re doing and it’s disgraceful.

I find that I myself am wearing a white shirt and black sunglasses as well, and though I am tieless, I have been near the protestors, among them. So I am watched as I go into the Alamo to use the men’s room. It is always shocking to go into the Alamo because, in hearing fragments of conversations alone, you realize how little people know of history, how easily they are misled and misinformed, how the victor controls the telling of the story. I cut through these snippets of words until I reach the restroom. A park policeman comes in a moment after I am turning from a stall. He turns right around and out the men’s room door. As I walk back through the Alamo compound, the pairs of police in my path are utterly professional behind their dark glasses.

I can’t shake an odd sense in their watching, when suddenly I notice something. I happen to be walking alongside a couple—Mejicano or Mexican American—who are also wearing white. It is, it might seem, a growing movement. I was one, and now I am three? I know my incidental companions are completely innocent, yet somehow, despite themselves, they too have now been implicated, they too could be questioned, could be believed or not.

Dagoberto Gilb’s most recent book is Gritos (Grove Press).